How to Handle an Art Sale that Doesn’t Work Out

The page from our Art Catalogue advertising the piece.
The page from our Art Catalogue advertising the piece.

above: the artwork hanging in the client’s home

I recently had a client call to ask if she and her husband could see one of the pieces featured in Xanadu Gallery’s Art Catalogue in their home. They loved the composition of the piece and felt it would be a great fit above their fireplace. The client has purchased a number of works from Xanadu over the years (including a good number from the Catalogue), and so I didn’t hesitate to contact the artist to have her ship the piece from her studio in Texas to the gallery so that I could show it to the clients.

Between the summer travel schedule of the artist, myself and the client, it took several weeks to line everything up, but last week I was able to take the piece to the client’s home and hang it above the fireplace. Only the wife was home at the time I delivered the art, and she asked if I could leave the piece overnight for her husband to see. She would call me the next morning with a credit card if they both felt it was the perfect piece for the space.

Early the next morning I received an email telling me that, unfortunately, her husband didn’t feel the piece spoke to him the way he had hoped it would. He liked the painting very much, but it just didn’t feel right to him for the space, and after discussing it, they didn’t feel they had any other space that would do it justice.

I’m sure many of you have run into a similar circumstance. My reaction is to quickly try and think if there is any reasonable thing I might do to save the sale – to resolve concerns the client has or help them see the work in a new way that will make it work. Having worked extensively with these clients in the past, however, I knew that this wasn’t the case. I knew from experience that once they made up their minds, there was no changing them.

I made arrangements to return to their home and pick up the piece. When I arrived I had a brief conversation with the wife. I could tell that she was a little nervous that they had inconvenienced me in some way by having had the artwork shipped over and having had me deliver it to their home. I reassured her that this was not the case, and let her know that we would keep an eye out for the perfect piece for the space. She’s one of the most avid followers of our Catalogue and website, so I’m confident that we will find the right piece for the space that both she and her husband will love for many years to come.

This experience got me thinking about all of the possible ways one might react to an unsuccessful sales attempt, and I wanted to share some guidelines I’ve tried to follow when a sale falls through.

  1. I don’t take the rejection of a piece of art personally. This is probably easier for me as a gallery owner than it is for you, since it is inherently more personal when someone decides not to buy your art. I would urge you not to take it personally if a client decides against purchasing one of your works. In many cases, the circumstances will be similar to my experience – it’s not that the client doesn’t like the art or is calling into question your talent, they simply don’t end up feeling as passionate about the art as they initially expected to. My client was careful to assure me that both she and her husband liked the painting (they wanted me to pass this on to the artist), but somehow it just didn’t seem to work with the other art in the room, and with the architecture, the way they had thought it might.
  2. I carefully ask if there was anything specific that they didn’t like about the piece. In this case, my clients couldn’t identify strong specific factors, but in the past, asking this question has helped me find a piece that did end up working for the clients. Often clients have a difficult time predicting how a piece will look in their home. Even if a particular piece doesn’t work, it can help me better understand what they want or don’t want in their space.
  3. I put a lot of effort into putting my clients at ease about any inconvenience I went through to show them the piece. As I mentioned, my client was sorry for any inconvenience she had caused me in getting the piece to her. You’ll often run into this with customers who decide not to purchase a piece that you’ve delivered to their home, or for whom you’ve made other special arrangements. I go out of my way to set their minds at ease. I truly don’t mind making effort to get artwork to a client for review because I know that the vast majority of the time when I get artwork into a client’s home, it’s going to sell. I would far prefer to deliver and hang the artwork and not have it sell on occasion, than to never have the opportunity to show clients artwork in their home in the first place because they are afraid of inconveniencing me. When I picked up this piece, I said “you have been such great clients – you can do no wrong in my eyes! I’m sure we’ll find just the right piece for you!” I felt that my enthusiasm and effort to reassure her that I wasn’t at all bothered by the effort to get the piece to her dramatically improved my chances for helping them find the right piece in the future. The last thing I would ever want is for a client to feel that I’m irritated in some way.
  4. I never, ever exert pressure to get someone to buy something they don’t love. This is a tricky question, because sometimes a sale will require extra effort on my part to help reassure a client that a piece actually does work in their space and that they should buy it. Some clients find it difficult to commit to a piece of art, especially in an important space in their home. I feel it’s my job in those instances to help the client work through his uncertainties and allow himself to buy the piece. I’ve had many clients later thank me for helping them buy a piece that they were at first unsure of, but later came to absolutely love. I suppose the art of salesmanship is knowing the difference between uncertainty and dissatisfaction with a piece. I knew the case of this recent deliver that there was no room to persuade or negotiate to try to make the sale. My clients were certain in their decision. When there’s certainty, the last thing I would want is for my client’s to feel I was trying to pressure them into buying something they don’t want. I’m looking at my long-term relationship with the client as the priority, and I would never jeopardize that relationship to try and force a sale.

Ultimately, I want my clients to buy art because they feel a powerful, emotional connection to the work. I want them to be happy with the work they’ve purchased from me forever. Keeping that in mind helps me know that any sales that don’t work out are just short-term setbacks.

I let the artist who had created the piece know that the sale hadn’t, unfortunately, gone through. I could tell right away that the artist also had the right attitude about sales. In her email response she said, “Thank you again for this opportunity. It would not have happened without your support in the first place.” What a great attitude! And of course, it’s also important to remember that her painting will find a home with someone who absolutely loves it.

What do you Think?

How have you handled sales that didn’t work out? Have you had experiences that went well? Have you had experiences the went poorly? What suggestions do you have for artists or galleries that run into a sale that doesn’t work out? Share what you’ve learned about handling sales that don’t work out in the comments below.

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About the Author: Jason Horejs

Jason Horejs is the Owner of Xanadu Gallery, author of Dad was an Artist | A Survivor's Story and best selling books "Starving" to Successful & How to Sell Art , publisher of reddotblog.com, and founder of ARTsala. Jason has helped thousands of artists prepare themselves to more effectively market their work, build relationships with galleries and collectors, and turn their artistic passion into a viable business. Connect with Jason on Facebook

18 Comments

  1. My concerns are exactly the same as those of Laura Goodhart. The artist incurred the shipping cost and now doesn’t have a sale. If you are going to show the piece in your gallery, the shipping cost would be worthwhile.

  2. At times I will have a client come into my gallery and express interest in a particular artist’s work which the gallery has returned to the artist. I will make arrangements to have the artist ship it to the gallery, if they place a deposit down on it, or they can wait until the artist is in the area, and I will ask the artist if he or she can bring it. I remind the client that they are taking a risk at that point, because the work may be purchased out from under them. If the client does put a deposit down on it, and I have the artist ship the work and they decide against purchasing it, their deposit is not returned, but put towards credit on any future purchase. I do the same thing when a client puts a reserve down on a work before an opening.

  3. Firstly, God Bless someone as yourself who is the business person for artists! Most of us are not good at it. As a mature artist I totally agree with all that transpired in this situation. It would be more upsetting for me to see one of my paintings sticking up from the top of a dumpster than to have someone pass it up initially. As a matter of fact if I make a sale from my studio I always tell the patron to take the piece and try it for a week (I do not frame or hang paintings, just no good at it anymore). We know all sorts of factors dictate love for artwork. But a couple of practical questions to you Jason, would you keep the piece in your gallery and show it in attempt to make a sale to another client? Who is responsible for the mailing costs? Living in Connecticut and shipping to Arizona would be costly for me especially both ways and for sizable art as this piece seems to be. I am not putting on the gloves, but simply curious. Best as always, Marie

    1. Well said, Michelle. Ditto! I doubt there is a gallerist anywhere who works as hard and with as much acumen as Mr. Horejs. If only everyone with gallery representation had such a partner.

  4. Never put pressure or lay on a guilt trip. If it is not the right connection for them, they will never be happier, and will come to regret. They will not come back for more.
    I want people to love my work, to bring joy every day when they look at it. They will share their joy with others. If they are happy, and felt a good rapport with the artist/seller, the will likely come shopping again.
    Be kind in accepting their decline to purchase, be gracious, do not let them feel bad. Even if they do not buy in the future, they will remember your kindness and goodwill, and will likely refer you to others.
    Treat others as you would wish to be treated.

  5. This is why integrity is so important. That was the proper resolution, to conduct the situation professionally, with due consideration to all parties. As an artist, I’ve encountered a similar situation.

    A collector’s husband and she disagreed on the colors in my painting (not a commission) for the particular space they wanted to fill in their home. It was merely the colors she liked, and he didn’t like. I believe in the cosmic truth that things happen for a reason. I was simply grateful for the opportunity to re-connect with them and we all knew that we mutually valued our friendship. I know that they support my art and will, eventually, as I continue to paint what I love, purchase one that speaks to both of them.

  6. Excellent and informative. There is another reason why sale fail “Prices”. One client, after all is done, they love the piece but not the price. Once collector asked me out right for discount, not 5%, not 10% but for 50% on a $9,500.00 piece. That was once sale, am glad did not happen.

    1. Some years ago I had a call from a gallery saying that they had a customer for two of my small paintings who had asked if I would discount the prices if they purchased both of them, so I agreed to a 10% reduction. Later I discovered that this customer was literally a Seattle billionaire who could afford to buy the whole gallery – she just liked to dicker.

      So now I just say that it’s a fair price for the quality and size of the work, and do not offer discounts. However, I do occasionally sell a piece on a time payment plan (put down a 1/4 deposit, and pay the the rest over several months with a signed agreement that the gallery holds the painting until it is paid for and if payments aren’t made there are no refunds). This allows a person who loves the art but isn’t a billionaire to acquire it within their budget limitations.

  7. It is wonderful that you cover shipping that was going to be my question. I have some large or fragile pieces that would cost so much to ship. We live in Tucson so we would probably just bring them to you. I agree with the artist it would be a fantastic opportunity even if it did not sell.

  8. I have a collector who in the past saw a painting they liked and asked to see it in their home. Those sales went through smoothly. The last time they said they had a space where they wanted one of my paintings and they wanted it to be color coordinated with two paintings in the same area that were done by another artists. I first went to their home to measure the space and take photos of the other two paintings so I could check to see what I had that matched the colors and would fit in the space. This was the first time they gave me no hint on subject matter.

    I emailed them images of about 8 paintings that I thought would work and asked for feedback. Their response was though they liked the paintings, none were what they have in mind. I sent a response asking for some idea of subject matter and in parallel looked again through my inventory and offered another 5 or 6 pieces. They selected 3 that they wanted to see.

    So we scheduled a time for me to bring those over for them to see in their home. The woman didn’t like any of them in the spot she was trying to fill because the spot was very poorly lit. She asked for my thoughts and I agreed that two did not work at all but I thought one did work. She surprised me and asked if I would hold up one of the two paintings they already had hung in their home in the target location. That painting looked better in the new location than mine and she decided to try my painting in the spot where the other had hung. This location was well lit and visible from both the entryway and the living room. She loved it in that location and decided to buy without her husbands input writing a check on the spot.

    This surprised me since he had been involved in all the other buying decisions and I worried if he’d be happy when he got home. Thankfully he did love it and was glad that I had taken care of rehanging the other painting and hanging my painting.

    At several times during this process I suspected I was not going to make a sale this time and found myself working hard a acting like all was fine and I wanted them to get the piece they loved. Inside I was dying since they have generally been so decisive about their purchased.

    As I was preparing to leave their home in Maryland, she described two paintings her husband wants and pointed out a spot where she thought one might fit. She asked my opinion about that location. I told her one of the two she described had sold but I had the other and agreed it should work in that spot. She had not asked me to bring that painting with me that day or I would have left it for the husband to see. However I know from experience with this couple that they will purchase several paintings at a time and not want to buy another for a couple years. I mentioned I’d be happy to bring it over if he wanted to see it in that space, but didn’t push. They have a new home in Florida which he was about to travel to and I figured the timing was not right. I’d rather not push a second sale right now. They both read my art newsletter and she reaches out regularly to comment on pieces. I think it’s best to wait and follow up another time when he’s not so busy.

  9. This isn’t really about handling unsuccessful sales, but an interesting side point. My website is with ArtStorefronts. They include a tool with which a person can view one of my paintings on their own wall correctly sized. This way they can easily envision how it would look anywhere in their house. I wonder if this tool could be valuable in situations where shipping cost is an impediment?

  10. I love how you and the artist handled everything. I think it’s always better to have a client emotionally connected to your work than to be unhappy with it, and it makes for a long relationship with that client.

    I recently had the experience of running across someone selling one of my paintings they had purchased a few years ago. I reached out to them to find out they had moved and as much as they loved the painting, it did not go with anything in their new house and location. I asked them if they would be interested in trading out for another painting (I’ve never done this before). They loved the idea, so after I got an idea of the colors and decor in their home, I sent them a few photos of some paintings I felt might work. She got back to me the next day, and told me how much she loved my paintings and chose one to trade evenly for. The painting she picked was smaller, but fit in her new living room, and the colors were perfect. We did a straight trade, and she is SO happy. Now I have a customer who still has one of my paintings in her home, and the one I traded for, I sold (again) within a week. We are both happy.

    I’ve never done this before, but I feel really good about how this went, and I still have a happy client.

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